In an exclusive with Spin’s Nick Sadleir, the world’s best bowler reflects on South Africa’s failed World Cup campaign and looks to the future.
South Africa had looked the best team at the 2011 World Cup but they failed to defend 221 in their quarter-final against New Zealand in Dhaka, despite having seemed in cruise control at 100-odd for two.
The favourites were bowled out for 172 runs – yet another calamitous end to a promising World Cup campaign.
“After we lost that quarter-final we were blown. We certainly didn’t feel like we had just lost another game of cricket,” Steyn told SPIN in India where he is leading Deccan Chargers’ bowling attack at the IPL. “In the changing room I didn’t know whether to cry (some guys were crying their eyes out), break something, scream or shout. I was broken. Since the T20 WC a year before all of our focus had gone into building for this tournament and we knew we were good enough to win it.”
What has transpired is that New Zealand, a team with a justified reputation for fighting above its weight planned to jump at any opportunity to get into the potentially vulnerable minds of South Africa’s less experienced middle order and that was exactly what they did when Faf du Plessis ran out AB de Villiers to reduce the Proteas to 121 for five.
Twelfth man Kyle Mills (who came on with drinks just after the run-out), captain Dan Vettori and sidekicks Scott Styris and Tim Southee could clearly be seen on the broadcast pictures letting du Plessis know that he had just run out his side’s best player. And they didn’t go easy on him. Du Plessis, in the heat of the moment, retaliated with aggravation by pushing Mills away from him.
“That night we were out-competed. We weren’t out-skilled or outplayed, they just came out there looking like they wanted it more than us. We relied on our ability to beat them but their competitiveness took it to us,” reflected Steyn.
“That fight that they had with AB and Faf showed that they had planned to take it to us and speaking to some of them now, they have admitted as much. All the other games we played we relied on our skill to get us through and it did but here was a game where we weren’t up for the fight.”
That fight was the moment that brought about yet another famous South African choke. Vettori and Mills were fined a percentage of their match fees (as was du Plessis) but the professional foul probably won their side the crunch match.
Does it matter so much that the Proteas have failed to fire on the World Cup stage?
Should it plague the side so much that they have failed to win key knockout games?
Is it not enough of an accomplishment that have always been fierce competitors in all forms of cricket?
“After the World Cup I feel like there is maybe too much emphasis on World Cups. It sounds so bad that I say this but why should some games mean so much more than others?” questioned Steyn.
“We have such hectic schedules and surely all games should matter as much as each other but World Cups are what people remember. The first cricket I remember caring about was 1992 with Jonty’s famous dive etc. I thought this is the pinnacle and I couldn’t wait for another four years so that I could watch some cricket that mattered again.”
“But now you have the T20 World Cup, the ICC Champs Trophy, the IPL, the Champions League and the ICC Test Championship to come. Never mind our important international series. So nowadays it seems more like if you screw up in one big tournament it doesn’t matter so much as there is another one every six months,” mused Steyn in his usual honest and friendly way.
When I asked Steyn why the team let the choker tag get to them so much instead of laughing it off he said, “I think that even if we had won this World Cup, people would still call us chokers when we next fail. Straight away they will throw it up again. It shouldn’t irritate us so much but it does get to me sometimes. There are only so many times you can be called an idiot before it really ticks you off – like a nickname at school that is funny in the beginning and then really upsets you.”
“It depends on the mood that you’re in but you usually aren’t in the mood to be teased when you have lost a game you should have won. I normally don’t let it get to me but sometimes it does. At the Johannesburg airport leaving for IPL recently an 18-year old kid chirped it to me and I went right up and put my face in his face and said to him ‘do you want to say that again’ – he was literally trembling after that.”
And such is the way South Africa have handled this choker bogeyman. A calm and composed guy, Steyn is an aggressive fast bowler and you wouldn’t expect him to take flak from a lippy teenager but it may be the Proteas’ own doing that the word hangs over their heads like Damocles’ sword.
It is a no-no to mention it at press conferences – it sends the players into a tizzy and I can’t help but think that such an issue wouldn’t affect a side like England, where an extensive cricket media is not afraid to challenge players on any issue and players seem better practised at facing the music. In South Africa we tip-toe around the issue in much the same way we skirt around the sensitive issue of race.
Whoever is South Africa’s next ODI captain needs to be able to talk about this ridiculous C-word and not look like he is going to punch every irritating journalist who mentions it.
For fear of acting like the moronic schoolyard name-calling bully (and pissing off the people we rely on for interviews) I have usually avoided using the word. But when I wrote a match report for a leading SA newspaper on a drawn Test in the UAE where South Africa, having been in complete control of the Test, again failed to bowl Pakistan out in five sessions to administer the coup de grace. The report was given the headline “Proteas Choke Again” and the sub-editor even slipped the C-word into my first paragraph. One can’t really blame him because using words like those sells newspapers and goodness knows how hard it is to sell newspapers these days – it is just the way the media works.
The next day I was told that certain members of the team’s management were looking for me to ask whey I used the “choke” word (even though I didn’t use it, strictly) and it dawned on me then that this national side may be setting themselves up to fail by being so obviously troubled by such nonsense.
Dealing with the media is never easy but the fact that someone like Steyn really believes that people would still call the side chokers at the next tournament if they had won this one (for they surely wouldn’t) shows that this nickname has affected the Proteas more than it should have.
South African cricket is due a shake-up and has an unusually long six-month break from international competition to reorganise before a bumper home season against Australia (starting on 13 October) and Sri Lanka and then a tour to New Zealand in February next year. In a month or two CSA will likely announce ex-coach Corrie van Zyl’s replacement and a new ODI skipper.
Unless he decides he doesn’t want it, the coaching job will go to Gary Kirsten, whose commitments with World Champions India ended after the recent World Cup. The current assistant and bowling coach, Vincent Barnes, is on record as having said that if he is not offered the post then he will likely consider other options on his table. In his seven years in the Proteas set-up, Barnes, 51, has served as deputy to Eric Simons, Ray Jennings, Mickey Arthur and Corrie van Zyl. Other names on CSA’s short-list are said to be Richard Pybus, an ex-Pakistan coach, and Dave Nosworthy, who has successfully coached the Lions and Titans in SA and incidentally was the man who discovered Dale Steyn when the youngster kept knocking over Nathan Astle’s stumps as a net bowler during the 2003 World Cup.
On the question of who will replace Graeme Smith as ODI skipper, CSA and its players are keeping their cards close to their chest. It makes sense that a new coach would be appointed first and that he would have a say in the matter but Steyn was generous enough to give us some of his views on the subject: “It’s not area 51 – we are actually allowed to talk about it,” he joked.
“I guess it will be one of Johan (Botha), AB (de Villiers) or Hashim (Amla). All three are very capable. Johan has done it well winning in Australia and every other time he has been asked to stand in. But I suppose there may be a bit of pressure on his place as Robin Petersen and Imran Tahir have been on form. The good thing that comes out of it is that we have options in the spin department and all three did well in the World Cup.”
“In Johan’s favour is that he has been making lots of runs in the IPL, batting at three and keeping the fastest bowler in the world (Shaun Tait) out of the team. So he is standing up and showing that he can be in any side – be it as a batsman, a bowler or a captain. He is a serious contender for the job.”
Whether or not Steyn hinted to us that Botha is the obvious choice was a bit cryptic but my interpretation is that he did just that. Another matter plaguing CSA revolves around the alleged mismanagement of funds by its board. The recent court-ordered reinstatement of its ousted president Mtutuzeli Nyoka has paved the way for an external audit and it is fair to say that no-one knows what will happen next. Steyn’s approach is simple: stay out of it.
“I don’t try and focus any energy on things that I have no control over – my job is just to play cricket. The saga over CSA finances gives a bad reflection on the side but it’s nothing to do with us. I must say it is quite funny to see that instead of the side being in the headlines for losing games, it is the board making headlines for how they handle the money. It isn’t a good thing but it doesn’t phase me.”
The IPL will be over soon, ending over four months in the subcontinent region for the fast bowler who took only a four-day break at home after the World Cup. Steyn plans to use some of the break to take the kind of holiday that cricket schedules have never allowed him.
“I am going for the holiday of my life in June, a whole month in the United States,” he tells me.
But it is what he plans to do afterwards that might take you by surprise. “My girlfriend (actress Jeanne Kietsmann) has some work in the UK after that so I am getting together with some county sides, just to train with them,” he revealed
“It’ll be sunny and warm in England while it is cold and rainy in Cape Town and I can see my girlfriend and do some good training by bowling in the nets around London.”
Steyn learnt much of his trade while playing at Essex and Warwickshire and it may well ruffle some feathers that he plans to spend time training with counties in England, especially as the Proteas are due to tour the country next summer. But what county in their right mind would turn down an offer from him to give batting practice to their squad? It is no doubt a smart way to train in the off-season without enduring the rigours of competition and all the travel that goes with it.
Steyn will then play for the Cape Cobras in the Champions League, which will likely take place in late September in either India or South Africa before the Proteas do battle with the Baggy Green – “It’ll be nice to then be playing at home for a while – we have some rankings to climb and we haven’t won a Test series in South Africa since 2008 when we beat beat Bangladesh. We lost to Australia when they came to us after we won that famous away series and then we drew our last two home series (against England and India). We want to make it tough for teams to come to SA so we need to actually win not draw our home series.”
South African cricket may be at a crossroads but having personnel of the calibre of Dale Steyn will ensure that they remain as good as any other side on the circuit.
This interview was conducted for Spin Magazine in May 2011 during the Indian Premier League.